Last day. Here we go.
Our team was not only down at the conference centre to attend the final sessions, but to do our presentation for Glasgow 2015.
The day started with a laugh. As we went out to get the doormen to hail a taxi, instead of the usual beefy ex-soldiers there was a scrawny wee man who appeared to have been dressed up in the big coat and bowler hat of the hefty chaps. He could see us looking oddly at him, and he confessed that he was actually the executive chef, and they were having a job-swop day throughout the hotel.
The final morning started with streamed sessions. I stayed in the main hall session because I didn’t want to stray too far from where I was going to be presenting Scotland’s advert. The session was entitled something I didn’t immediately recognise – the Marikana incident. However, it didn’t take long to realise this was the miners’ industrial action last August in South Africa when a number of people – workers and police – were shot and died.
The session was in two parts, the first being a wider analysis of the relationship among the mining industry, the rival unions vying for control of the employees of the mining companies, the companies themselves, the police and the politicians. This set the scene for part two, which was a talk by the attorney acting – pro bono as legal aid has been refused – for the miners being represented at the inquiry commission into the incident. But his talk was prefaced by some film footage, showing at close range a group of miners walking towards the camera faced by a dozen armed police officers. All of a sudden there was a prolonged burst of machine gun fire and the men fell and lay still. Dead. There was dust everywhere in the air, and as it settled all that could be seen were more bodies. One prone miner moved a little, pathetically waving his arm to ward off the police. There was complete silence in the auditorium.
The speaker went on to describe the incident in detail and the state of the inquiry, and the prospects for an outcome. But we couldn’t get the brutal shooting scene out of our minds.
The plenary closing session had all the expected furniture of thanks and awards, but the keynote address was by Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales, who gave a personal and passionate account of the evils of apartheid, and his satisfaction at being in a country where now the colour of your skin is no longer the basis of your value. Indeed he even began to break down as he told us about the sufferings of one particular black mother, and wasn’t able to read out the contents of a letter she had written as he said: “If I did so, there would be a tear in my eye and one in yours”. I had had the pleasure of a chat with Igor Judge a couple of days before, and I find him not only to be a wise judge but a warm and caring man.
When it come time to close the conference, I was invited up on the stage by Denver Burns, our host, who as well as being an attorney is a former Mr South Africa, according to Katie who googled him and saw him in his trunks. His website billed him as the Most Desirable Man in South Africa. Well, once I got up on stage I think he knew those days were over.
I gave a thumbnail sketch of what Glasgow has to offer and introduced a promotional video which was a fantastically slick and sophisticated film, jumping from Kelvingrove to Hampden to the Armadillo to swinging a golf club to fine dining to ceilidh music and lots more, all showcasing the 2015 conference city. The audience loved it, giving it a huge round of applause, and even a few whoops. I finished off by telling everyone I would see them again in Glasgow, and our piper started up. The WAGs handed out hundreds of leaflets for 2015 and the piper was mobbed by every African in the place, all wanting to be photographed with him. So while the conference had been winding its way to a tired and weary close, our presentation pumped up the volume and the energy, and everyone left the auditorium with a great buzz.
In the afternoon, a wee group went to Robben Island on the boat, to visit the prison where Mandela and others were incarcerated for many years. This was expected to be a high point, and was in two parts. The first is a bus tour of the island, where we were shown the sights, such as the graveyard for the leper colony that existed here, old churches, various unusual seabirds (including the red-eyed red-beaked oyster catcher that lays its eggs not in a nest but on the rocks beside the sea), penguins, huge army guns installed for the Second World War but never fired in anger, and more. The island is now inhabited mainly by ex-prisoners and a few ex-guards, a small community that is relatively self-sufficient on this low, dusty place. One highlight, if that’s the word, was the lime quarry, a foul smelling, poisonous hole where prisoners (the political leaders had this as their special duty) howked out the lime for the building of roads and walls. Conditions here were harsh, as not only were the guards ordered to shoot dead anyone who tried to walk away from the quarry, but no protective gear was given in the first years of operation, and damage to lungs, skin and eyes has resulted for most of those who worked here. That is why, for example, in public gatherings Mr Mandela is attending photographers are asked not to use flashes with their cameras.
The second stage is a tour of the prison by an ex-prisoner (Zozo). He spoke rapid-fire about conditions and the conflicts with the guards about standards of dress, bedding and food, and the classification of prisoners depending on race. We saw Mandela’s garden where he hid his manuscript for the Long Walk to Freedom, and his cell. It was atmospheric and historic, though those of us who are accustomed to visiting prisons in our day jobs were perhaps a little underwhelmed at the conditions, as they were no more spartan than an old-style Scottish jail.
And that more or less is it. We are shaping up to fly home, all going our separate ways. As in the Lord of the Rings, the fellowship breaks up, and I am heading back to the Shire (East RenfrewShire). We have all worked hard, but it has been fun and fascinating. We have made a great start in the preparations for Glasgow 2015. We have joined in what I now think of as a crucial process of supporting and promoting, and sadly protecting, the rule of law in a huge portion of the world. Indeed I have been asked to write a piece for the Scotsman for Monday 22nd, and that gives an idea of my thoughts on how important the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and the conference are.
So thanks to everyone. Jamie, The Chief, KatieH, Neil, Kevin, Alistair, and the WAGs – Diane, Sandra, Lucas and of course delegate number 666 the First Lady. And to our fellow Scots who graced the conference and our dinner with their presence. Thanks to our friends from elsewhere, especially Lucy and Des from England, who, if the bottom falls out of the legal game, can get jobs as shark hunters, and Alan, Michael and Brian from Northern Ireland. And lots, lots more.
So I am done. I hope you have enjoyed reading this diary. I have had a great time as your roving reporter. Cape Town has been wonderful, but I am already looking forward to getting back to Glasgow.Austin